An essay of mine was highlighted this week on
LIT HUB DAILY.
Quite an honor. Thanks to everyone who read and commented.
An essay of mine was highlighted this week on
LIT HUB DAILY.
Quite an honor. Thanks to everyone who read and commented.
A woman in one of my Facebook writing groups recently solicited advice on how best to approach a “rockstar” level person for a blurb, given that she’s a “nobody.” I laughed when I read the post, remembering a time long ago…
…It’s 2005 and my second book/first novel is soon to be released and my editor is all askew with worry that I don’t have any blurbs for its back cover. She’d sent off 30 galleys to A-list writers, but none had yet to respond. I suspected not one of those 30 authors were going to put out.
Why? Mostly because I wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Much like what goes on in Hollywood, it all comes down to who you know, and I knew no one in the literosphere. (If you look at some of the “highly praised” novels on your bookshelf there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same authors passing blurbs back and forth amongst themselves like massages in a college dorm.)
While attempting to secure my own valuations, my editor asked me to blurb a book by one of her authors. I said, “Of course,” since that was the polite thing to do. Ultimately, I found the book—a memoir about growing up on an Indian ashram—a little too self-absorbed. (This, from a writer who would go on to publish a self-absorbed memoir about living in a bamboo hut in Bali). As I needed all the good blurb karma I could round up I opined that the book was “wonderfully entertaining and wholly original.”
Once I realized that said blurb karma wasn’t going to kick in, I emailed A-list author Jennifer Weiner directly. Her (many bestselling) books had little in common with mine other than that they were both pigeon-holed as “chick-lit.” Her reply to my ask was curt, polite, and utterly forgettable. Interestingly, in an essay she wrote nine years later, she decries blurbs but goes on to say how sympathetic she is to blurb-seekers:
It’s hard out there for a new writer. It’s especially hard for new women writers who, statistics tell us, are less likely to get published or reviewed. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to help, why wouldn’t you? I believe in karma, in paying it forward, in using whatever influence I have for good.
Not having been in the path of Weiner’s forward-paying behavior, I began to look further afield. I read a news clip about the actress Emma Thompson who said she adored traveling to Zanzibar. Since my novel takes place almost entirely on the Tanzanian island, I felt it reasonable to ask a famous movie star to blurb a novel by an unknown writer.
As luck would have it, a writer friend of mine knew an agent who knew her agent who generously offered to send the book to her in London.
By the time Emma’s (naturally we’re on a first-name basis) note arrived I’d received three good-enough blurbs: one from a local author whose reading I’d attended. The other two came from lesser-known writers enlisted by my editor. One called it a “sexy triumph.” The other stated that my “ambitious debut novel brims with heart and heartache.” (My assumption is that they, too, were trying to garner their own blurb karma.)
Did sales of my novel suffer because I didn’t get any rockstar blurbs? Maybe. It also might have been because it’s not a very good novel (please don’t tell my agent I said that). It started out great but then the editor who bought it in the first place left the publishing house for the opportunity to edit Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The new editor eviscerated my plot, wanted more sex, and, well, that part of the story is best left for another time…
I will tell that Facebook writer that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to getting attention from A-listers. I will point out that it’s not going to be easy to extract blurbs from famous people, but I will encourage her to give it a try. I will remind her that even somebodies were once nobodies and maybe, just maybe, one of them will remember that and actually pay it forward.
This essay was also published in the 12/18/2020 edition of Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog.
On a sunny afternoon in the fall of 2001 I did the same thing: I went to The French Laundry when I “should have modeled better behavior.” For one thing, there was no way we could afford it. More to the point: I was newly pregnant.
Soon after I finished writing my first book I ran into an old friend who introduced me to his agent who loved it enough to sign me on as a client.
And then I got pregnant. Perhaps for most women this wouldn’t have been so momentous, but I was 40 years old and had recently suffered a first-trimester miscarriage.
Which is why, when my husband Victor suggested we celebrate our plenteous good fortune by splurging for lunch at The French Laundry, I hesitated.
“You know I have to be way careful with what I eat,” I whined, imagining being served unpasteurized French cheeses shot-through with listeria. Mercury-laden fish. Bivalves swimming with fetus-killing bacteria. “Plus, we can’t afford it.” Between Victor’s public school teacher’s salary and my non-existent earnings, we were barely scraping by. A splurge for us usually amounted to going out to The Willo Steakhouse on Highway 49 and not paying extra to be able to cook our own steaks.
Victor’s college friend Jeff happened to be in Napa for a wedding and asked if he could join us. Jeff was a bigwig at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with a bigwig salary to boot. Maybe, I thought as we hugged hello before sitting down, he’d offer to foot the bill.
As a waiter placed the linen napkin on my lap he remarked, “Chelsea Clinton sat in this very chair just yesterday. She was celebrating her graduation from Stanford.”
“That’s cool. We’re celebrating too.”
“Oh? What are you celebrating?” he asked, slapping away a non-existent hair from the back of my chair.
Before I could answer, Jeff said, “A book and a baby! They’ve got both on the way!”
We were giddy, oh yes, were we ever: so when the waiter came back and said, “Thomas [as in the Thomas Keller] would like to prepare a special menu with wine pairings for you today if you don’t mind,” we said, “Of course!”
I quietly reminded the waiter that I was pregnant and would take merely a sip or two with each course so half bottles would probably do just fine.
Oh, and no innards like liver or foie gras, I added before he left. Not good for the baby.
And could he perhaps mention to Chef that I cannot eat unpasteurized cheeses I subtly mentioned when he returned with the first bottle of wine.
We had white truffle soufflé served in a delicate egg shell (was it okay to eat pig-sniffed fungi?); lamb done three ways; peas prepared in some spectacular guise. On it went, course after course, me alternately fretting and feasting. I cannot remember much more of what we ate because, honestly, two sips of wine multiplied almost a dozen times make for a pretty tipsy pregnant chick.
Four hours later the waiter brought the check.
I opened the brown leather packet.
And almost fell out of my chair.
I won’t divulge how much the bill was (and no; Jeff did not offer to pay), but it was more than we presently spend on our groceries for an entire month. Sure, the food was delicious and the service impeccable, but for weeks after that meal, all I did was worry that I/we screwed up. That something I ate was doing harm to my growing fetus. That I shouldn’t have taken even one sip of wine. That the money we spent was irrevocably reckless.
But…a month later a slew of New York editors read my book and fought over it, Hyperion offering me a 6-figure advance for a two-book deal. Four months after that I gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
It’s a shame that Governor Newsom’s memory of that inimitable meal at The French Laundry will be forever stained, like my own was, by the worrisome fallout that followed. He never should have disregarded his own edict in the face of this pandemic. I never should have taken a chance on eating anything beyond whole clean healthy foods in the midst of a precarious pregnancy.
But sometimes we humans forget that our behaviors have the capacity to change others’ lives. That how we act, whether we are public figures or private citizens, can change the course of history—writ large or small.
Which is why it’s more important than ever to model better behavior.
Why it’s a good idea to maintain a distance of 6 feet.
Why it’s imperative , above all else, to wear a mask.
Hey, the essay I wrote about how my baby is spending her first semester of college was just published on Grown&Flown. Go read it.
SHE LOVED TO DANCE
And did whenever she had the chance.
SHE LOVED TO HOLD HANDS
“I’m not just talking about the millions of times she’d grab one of my unruly child hands before crossing a street or while strolling through a crowded mall. I mean like when I’d visit her in California and we’d be sitting side by side watching television and she would casually reach over and take my hand and place it gently in her own. I usually let her.“—Lisa
SHE LOVED TO KEEP UP WITH THE LATEST NEWS
She read the San Diego Tribune daily and religiously watched the evening news. At 5:00, no matter what she was doing, she’d “shhh” anyone within earshot and turn on the TV so she could be in the know.
SHE LOVED BEING A GRANDMOTHER
Brianna and Blake and MJ and Loy. They were her treasures.
SHE LOVED TO WASH HER DISHES TO A SPARKLING SHINE BEFORE PLACING THEM IN THE DISHWASHER
SHE LOVED COORDINATED OUTFITS
“She hated the way I dressed. I still cannot rid my memory of her barring me from leaving the house one day while proclaiming, ‘You cannot wear a pink dress with black shoes!‘”—Lisa
SHE HATED HAVING TO CHANGE LANES ON THE FREEWAY
SHE LOVED A GOOD LOBSTER DINNER
SHE LOVED PLAYING GIN RUMMY
And she won far more often than not.
SHE HATED BINGO
SHE LOVED HER CHILDREN
She was forever gloating about Lisa’s accomplishments, Scott’s business acumen, and Marc’s big beautiful heart. Marc, her firstborn, called her daily and she adored hearing from him. She loved her baby boy Scott so much that when you’d ask her (in recent years) how many children she has she’d often say, “Four: Marc. Lisa. Scott. And Scott.” She must have felt that she could never have enough of him.
SHE LOVED TO BE THERE WHEN YOU NEEDED HER MOST
“Even if you mistakenly believed you didn’t need her, like right after I gave birth to Loy and didn’t want her to fly up from San Diego to stay with us, but she did anyway and everything she did to help was exactly the right thing, from keeping at bay the myriad visitors (while graciously accepting their dropped-off meals) to cleaning the house to holding the baby so I could shower to teaching me the lullabies I would sing to Loy for many years to come.“—Lisa
SHE LOVED BEING THE FIRST ONE TO CALL HER KIDS AND SING TO THEM ON THEIR BIRTHDAYS
SHE LOVED TO QUOTE OLD WIVE’S TALES
SHE LOVED TO FISH
Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. She enjoyed when Marc took her out on his boat in Missouri.
“Mom would never touch a fish or worm so when she was here I gave up fishing to help her. The priceless look on her face every time she caught a fish was so worth it. The excitement, the thrill, the squeal of joy she would give out I will hold forever and relive whenever I’m out on my lake. There is a point at the start of a cove that she named “crocodile point” because Mom thought it looked like a croc’s mouth. I will always call it that. Every time I look out at the lake the first thing I see is that point and it makes me think of Mom.”—Marc
SHE HATED CLOSED-MINDED, RACIST, OR SELFISH PEOPLE
SHE LOVED THE GOOD TIMES SHE HAD WITH OUR FATHER
But she hated him for leaving her after thirty years.
SHE LOVED A NICE PURSE
And she had quite the collection.
SHE LOVED TO SHOW OFF HER MAGICAL GARDENING SKILLS
SHE LOVED ALL CREATURES, GREAT AND SMALL
“One year a mama bird made a nest in one of her planters on her deck. She considered moving it, but knew that would be cruel. A few days after the babies hatched she woke up to find her body covered with small itchy bites: her house had been inundated with bird mites. God, that made her so mad.”—Lisa
SHE LOVED HER SISTER SHARON
So much so that she moved from her beloved California condo to a gated community in a state she very much abhorred, just to be nearer to her. Sure, they had their differences, and yes, they fought over the silliest things, but the devotion those two had for one another was immeasurable. “She was my world.”—Sharon
SHE LOVED SHARON’S HUSBAND MARTY
“We had a lot of fun together. Sometimes when I had work in San Diego I’d stop by and surprise her and her eyes would light up when she saw me. I remember one New Year’s Eve, she was dating that Woody guy at the time, and we all went to a Disco. We danced the night away. She could boogie like no one else. She was my wife’s sister, sure, but she and I had something special between us.—Marty
SHE LOVED HER EXTENDED FAMILY
Particularly her sister’s children and grandchildren: Jen and Howard and their children Cameron and Ashley and Noah; and Jamie and his children Nathan and Arianna.
“Ashley, Cameron, and Noah had their own special bond with her. Ashley and Aunt would always enjoy playing dolls or Barbies together, especially when we would visit her at her home. Cameron would enjoy the cars and trucks that she played with him and looking for the special snacks/cookies at her house. She and Noah developed a very silly relationship making up the most ridiculous names for each other. Like when she called him peanut butter he’d call her hot dog. For a long time she called him meatball and he called her pizza.”—Jennifer
“The first time I met Aunt was at a Pesach Seder dinner at Jen’s parents’ house. I really didn’t know anyone that night other than Jen, and I was a little nervous. That’s when I met her. Aunt. I called her that right away. Even before I knew where my relationship with Jen was headed. Even before I called Sharon and Marty, “Mom and Dad.” I called her “Aunt” because that’s what Jen called her. Never “Aunt Florine.” Just “Aunt.” Aunt had a spirit about her that made you instantly comfortable around her. And yeah, she was, what’s the right word? She was…elegant.”—Howard
“When I was a young girl, Aunt used to come spend the night at our home in New Jersey. I would always want to sleep with her because we would stay up talking for hours. Our talks were always so much fun and I recall the time we discussed where the sun rises and sets. Her makeup and hair always had to be done and she dressed to impress. I will never forget her silky pink bathrobe that she wore to have her coffee in the mornings. We had an amazing bond between us: whether we were near or far I could always count on her. One more thing: Aunt always wrote the best birthday cards!“—Jennifer
SHE LOVED THE BEACH
But she hated that it made her hair frizzy.
SHE LOVED TO HELP OUT
“When Lisa and I bought a dilapidated 1871 miner’s cabin, she immediately volunteered to help us fix it up, even if that meant donning a pair of dirty jeans. Naturally, she wore a pair of protective gloves as she cleaned 130-year-old walls. God forbid she ruin her manicure.“—Victor
“Whenever we needed help, she was there. When Jen’s back went out Aunt didn’t think twice about coming to stay with us to help with our 21-month-old twins and 3-month-old. She was selfless.“—Howard
SHE LOVED WHEN PEOPLE SHE COOKED FOR ASKED FOR SECONDS
SHE HATED BEING REFERRED TO AS FLO
Her name was Florine and even though she never loved her own name, she despised any play on it. After Loy’s godmother Ellen called her Flo, she refused to speak to her.
SHE LOVED MAHJONG
SHE LOVED HER BESTIES CATHY AND LOIS AND BOBBI AND ESTHER
They threw some crazy pool parties. Yeah. They did.
SHE LOVED TO TRAVEL
SHE LOVED MEETING NEW MEN
And oh did she ever have plenty of suitors. She opened her heart to many, but none meant more to her than Keith Anderson. Keith loved her passionately, took her on trips, and kept her comfortable. That is, until one night in a bar in Las Vegas he met a woman who looked like his dead wife and, in a drunken haze, he married her. After that, my mother began a decades-long affair with her own boyfriend. It suited her just fine.
SHE LOVED FANCY CLOTHES
She especially loved apparel that made her feel spoiled and sexy, like furs and silk and cashmere. A long time ago she bought a pink satin robe and not a day went by when she didn’t wear it.
SHE LOVED TO TALK ON THE PHONE
Growing up we all just assumed the telephone was attached to her hand.
SHE LOVED COUPONS
It didn’t matter if she needed something—it was just the idea that she could get it at a discount that made it special. Her pantry was stuffed full of expired foods, as well as things she’d only eat if the world was ending and she wouldn’t be able to get to the store—things like sugar-free pudding and canned onions. Whenever you asked her why she purchased such items she’d say, “I had a coupon!”
SHE LOVED TO READ
SHE LOVED A GOOD SALAD
Mostly she loved a crunchy salad. Before she lost her ability to cook for herself, she made a salad every night. It always included the crispiest lettuce available. She’d add whatever the bottom drawer of her packed refrigerator would offer, whether it be purple cabbage or cold tasteless tomatoes, she’d throw it in. She never ever used bottled dressing but would make her own dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar and lots of dried herbs, always adding a pinch of sugar before tossing it. Whenever she went out to eat she ordered a salad and, if it was in any way subpar (even one small piece of brown or wilted lettuce), she’d send it back and ask for a better one.
SHE LOVED TO LAUGH
And she did, often.
SHE LOVED BEING LOVED
And she was…fiercely.
Florine Lorraine (Knapp) Kusel (born June 20, 1937), late of Boynton Beach, Florida, La Costa, CA, Edison, NJ, and New York, NY, died a painful and preventable death from Covid 19 on Friday, July 31, 2020. She was a compassionate and generous daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, and friend. She shall remain forever in our hearts and memories.
Last night I watched the fourth episode which centered around a charity ball thrown by the lead female character, Rebecca, whose ex-husband, Rupert, cheated on her. Up until now Rupert’s been off-camera, only being described (derogatorily), or glimpsed in newsprint—over Rebecca’s shoulder—where we see the never-ending paparazzi shots of him cavorting with his young dalliances.
Rupert made his first real appearance at the ball, and, as expected, he was both dashing and dreadful. Halfway through the final scene I realized I recognized the actor playing him but had no idea who he was.
1. Anthony Head has played a great many characters named Rupert in his career;
2. Although I’d seen many of his past performances, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew him from some place else. Somewhere more, um, intimate.
OCD as I am, I doggedly dug deeper, until at last I found it: that moment in my past when our worlds collided—or, rather, clinked.
In 1987, Nestlé ran an ad campaign for British television featuring Tony and Sharon, fictional characters who slowly fall in love after Sharon borrows a jar of Nescafé instant coffee from Tony. The 12 “episodes” of these soap opera-style commercials were a huge hit. The Gold Blend Couple, as they were known, were played by Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan. Here is the first episode which aired in England:
(And no: this is not where I knew Mr. Head from. Let me continue…)
In 1990, Nestlé brought the couple and their love story to American consumers, with a few variations. In the U.S. version, “Gold Blend” becomes “Taster’s Choice,” and Tony (now Michael) loses his accent. Here is the second episode which aired in the United States (the first seems to have disappeared):
Wanting to arouse more customer involvement, Nestlé launched their “Taster’s Choice Most Romantic First Date” contest. Participants were asked to describe, in 250 words or less, their most romantic first date. Presumably, it would involve coffee-drinking.
Here is my (entirely fictitious) entry:
As you might have guessed by now, I was one of the (10?) winners. I was flown to Los Angeles and put up in a fancy hotel (I cannot remember which one), where I enjoyed a lovely lobster lunch with none other than Mr. Head and Ms. Maughan.
I wish I could say it was an experience I will never forget because, well, I’d completely forgotten about it until last night.
Hair alight and lighter
Cancel culture, covid clusterfucks
Parents up in arms
Teachers angry and afraid
Florida, where my mother rests
Totally in the dark
No longer afraid. I’m thinking it’s time
To move to New Zealand
To paint or
To clean the brushes for the painter so that he has time, more
Time to find the greens.
Even though I know that reading the news is bad for my mental health, I still open The New York Times every morning. After clicking on the Coronavirus Update I immediately scan the U.S. maps, and if I see Vermont in the “Where new cases are decreasing” section, I softly, silently, clap. Only then do I move on to the non-corona stories.
Recently, I skimmed through an article about Bayer agreeing to pay $10 billion to the more than 95,000 people who developed cancer after being exposed to Roundup, a popular weedkiller produced by Monsanto (Bayer purchased the company in 2018). I’d been following the story on and off and was glad to see that those sick farm workers were finally going to be compensated.
I was about to close the tab and go read about the rising cost of cheese, when it dawned on me: Roundup causes non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
I have that kind of cancer.
The first time I met Leslie, my radiation oncologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, she was wearing a cute brown tunic dress and biker-type brown leather boots. I told her I liked her outfit and she said she liked my beaded bracelet. I could tell we were going to get along like friends who haven’t had to quarantine together. After some preliminary “blah blah your cancer blah blah electron radiation blah blah” discussion, she walked me over to a small room for my “simulation.” I was told to lie on my back on the CT scan table and hold still while a very handsome technician named Damien (really? Did his parents not watch The Omen?) draped a warm wet sheet of plastic mesh over my face. After what seemed like an hour (I think it was more like 15 minutes), I turned onto my stomach so that Damien could repeat the process. This video will make clear what happened (btw: Damien did not speak with a British accent and that guy at the end is far too jovial for my taste):
With the completed mask now screwed into place, they conveyed me in and out of a CT scan machine a few million times. The resultant images were to help Leslie and her team of purportedly intelligent physicists design my treatment.
Before saying goodbye, my good friend Leslie nonchalantly slid a consent form in front of me. On it were listed some side-effects that might ensue, including:
1. hair loss;
2. extreme tiredness;
3. the possibility of getting future cancers.
“I’m not signing this,” I said, looking at her. Her pager had just buzzed and she was reading it.
“Why not?” she replied. I could tell our friendship was about to be tested.
“You said I wouldn’t lose my hair.”
She sighed. “In all likelihood, with such a low dose of radiation, you won’t, but you still need to sign it.”
I hemmed. She glanced impatiently down at her hip, which soon buzzed again.
I hawed. She smiled at me. “I have to go.”
“I’ll see you back here in two weeks,” she said before rushing out the door.
Dear Insert Lawyer’s Name Here,
Between 2008 and 2010 I lived in a co-housing community on 125 acres in Charlotte, Vermont. To the north of the community there was a dairy farm with accompanying corn fields. To the south, more corn fields. A strawberry farm bordered us on the east side. At the time I had a small child and was worried about her exposure to toxins so I reached out to both farmers and asked what exactly was spewing out of their tractor sprayers and crop dusters buzzing over our house. They were defensive but forthcoming: they used glyphosate (the herbicide in Roundup).
In January of this year I was diagnosed with Cutaneous B-cell Follicular Lymphoma.
I have no idea if there is enough evidence to prove causation, but if so, let me know if you are interested in pursuing this.
Leslie walked into the exam room. “The machine is ready to go so we should make this fast,” she said snapping open her laptop.
I was supposed to check in and proceed directly to the radiation treatment room, but a few days before my appointment I’d emailed my ever-growing list of questions and concerns to Leslie, and she’d generously agreed to a quick visit.
“The team wanted to radiate down through this area,” she said pointing to an image on the screen that might well have been a map of Turkey. “But I told them to redesign the plan so it’s brain-sparing.”
I blinked. “They wanted to go deep enough to zap my brain? Why would they choose to do that if they don’t have to?”
“What can I tell you? They’re just nerds who look at computers. They don’t think in human terms.”
I pictured a bunch of frat boys with beers in their hands maneuvering around my CT scan pics like they were shooting for the next level in Grand Theft Auto. “Let’s blast these mofo tumors, dude!”
“Huh,” I said noticing on the screen a large red band crossing the entire top of my head like a bloody caul. “Is all that red where the radiation is going? I thought you were just directing the beams at the individual tumors.”
“No, we changed our minds,” she said to the person who hates a last-minute change of plans. “They’re too diffuse and there might be more under the skin that we can’t see.”
I fell back into the chair and started to tear up. I touched my scalp, imagining nascent tumors budding through it, like baby goat horns. “Then you’re radiating my whole head?” I asked my ex-friend Leslie.
She nodded. “Yeah. It makes the most sense.” She looked at her watch and stood up. “Let’s go before we lose the room.”
The large “room” which held the enormous MACHINE was freezing. The technicians—a surly man named Trevor and a meek woman named Liz—told me to lie face-down on the table and make myself as comfortable as possible. They affixed the heretofore mentioned mask onto my head, making sure the nose holes were positioned properly—I would need to breath—before tightening the bolts; thus rendering me completely immobile.
From behind the safety glass in the other room Trevor spoke into a microphone, warning me each time something new was going to happen, like, “We’re taking an x-ray now just to check our placement,” or “We’re raising you up a little more,” or “Is this music okay or do you want something different?”
I could only answer with a thumbs up, which I did, even though the very bad 80’s music was anything but relaxing.
I sensed the table rising then lowering then twisting around. I saw flashes of light through my closed eyes. I breathed—in for 5, out for 5. I pretended I was getting a massage and that my face was resting through that soft hole at the end of a massage table. I felt the masseuse’s hands caressing my shoulders, my tense back, my—and then Trevor said, “Okay, here we go. It’ll be about 30 seconds,” and I braced for it, having no idea what I was actually bracing for, but suddenly there was a light so bright it was as if an atomic bomb had exploded before my eyes.
And then it was done and someone lowered the table and someone else unbolted me and someone else helped me off the table and someone else handed me my purse and said, “See you back here tomorrow for round 2!”
Low likelihoods aside, my hair began falling out two weeks later. It wasn’t like what happens to people who get chemo and become totally bald: only the follicles in the irradiated parts of my scalp died. Picture Christian Bale in “American Hustle.”
Since Blue Cross covers the cost, I figured I’d splurge on a deluxe
wig prosthetic hairpiece, but after it arrived and I tried it on, I cried. Sure, it was luxurious and it hid my exposed pate (as well as my new gray hairs), but the clips tugged on the few remaining hairs I had and…honestly, my head couldn’t stomach it.
I watched 3,478 videos—most of them made by stunning Muslim women—that demonstrated nifty ways to tie a turban with a scarf. I learned how to make an easy head covering out of a t-shirt.
A few friends came to my aid with some fashionable fixes: Lori sent me a cool summer-colored Boho Bandeau. Marcella bought me a silky flowered scarf and a very chic fedora. Karin mailed—all the way from Australia—an Aboriginal Art sun hat.
To be sure, losing my hair has depressed the heck out of me. I feel as if my feminine side got ghosted. I avoid looking at my reflection in the mirror. I don’t go out and see people, but hey—I wouldn’t anyway since we’re in the midst of a pandemic.
Timing is everything, right?
All four law firms I contacted told me that unless I actually used Roundup, there was no way to prove causation. Being that I’m not a litigiously-inclined person, I wasn’t too disappointed. I mean, I wasn’t hoping to get money. I was just hoping to find some answers.
“Oh yes, this looks beautiful,” Joi, my dermatologist, pronounced this past Monday as she ran her hand across my now-smooth skull. “Excellent results.”
“Does this mean I’m cured?” I said, quickly retying my scarf.
She frowned. “No. There’s still a fifty percent chance you’ll get more tumors, but probably not in the same place.”
“Hunh.” I glanced over at Kevin, my oncologist who sat typing on his laptop. “If they do come back I’m guessing you’re going to suggest I ‘mow the lawn,’” I said, quoting him with a smirk. Back when we’d first met, Kevin had strongly advised I get four infusions of a monoclonal antibody drug. He felt it would clear my entire system of the cancer: it would “mow the lawn.” Given the very scary side effects, I had adamantly refused.
He nodded. “Right now you’re fine, but if it comes back it could be a more serious form of lymphoma. “And,” he said, adding his pièce de résistance, “Rituximab won’t make your hair fall out.”
As if reading my mind, Joi put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Your hair will grow back, Lisa. It’ll take a few months, but I did see some tiny ones just now.”
I shrugged, feeling only slightly mollified. I knew it would be a while before the tumors returned, if ever. I knew that my cancer was an indolent, not-so-deadly sort. I knew I had to take what good I’d been offered and be grateful. Okay, so I lost my hair, but, as Loy pointed out, “It’s way better than losing your life.”
When, at age thirteen, I asked my parents if I could get my ears pierced, they immediately said yes. They knew that most of my girlfriends had already gotten their lobes shot through with an air gun, and since both my mother and father were raised in poverty, they weren’t about to deprive their daughter from having what everyone else had.
For my father, though, what everyone else had was not going to be good enough.
I would need to have better, or, if possible, the best. Meaning that while Dina and Debbie and Jennifer were gleefully displaying ears newly-adorned with gold studs, silver stars or bronze balls, my father insisted I wear diamonds, given that he was in a position to easily afford them. (His arrest for wire fraud and subsequent bankruptcy were still years away.)
“But I don’t want diamonds,” I whined to my mother after we pulled into the Topanga Mall parking lot. I wanted tiny gold balls, or maybe even hoops. I had no idea if you could get hoops but it was the 1970s and hoops were all the rage. I wanted to be part of that rage. Cher wore them and she had about the cutest husband ever. Linda Ronstadt rocked her huge hoops. I would rock them too.
“Your father wants you to have diamonds,” my mom said unbuckling her seat belt. “Stop complaining and get out of the car.”
We walked into Nordstrom whereupon my mother became a woman possessed, lurching toward the women’s blouses, rifling through them as if her life depended on it. I ambled along from rack to rack, watching her slam hangers aside as if they somehow offended her. She’d hold up a shirt, sigh, then cram it back in, her obsessive yen for neatness shunned. She forgot I was even there, standing impatiently a few feet behind her. Out of habit, I began to rub my right earlobe.
“You realize after today you won’t be able to do that anymore,” my mother declared, surprising me yet again with those eyes she had in the back of her head.
“What?” I said. “What won’t I be able to do anymore?”
“Rub your ears,” she said as she headed over to pants. “Once there’s an earring in there, no more.”
No more rubbing?
When I was little, like four or five, my mother caught me with my hand down my pants, playing with my vagina. Rubbing it. “Why do you keep doing that?” she’d asked in a slightly irritated voice. “Are you itchy?”
“I like it. It’s soft,” I replied. In retrospect, it’s possible that I might have been searching out pleasures beyond the obvious tactile ones. In fact, it’s quite normal for two to six-year-olds to touch themselves “down there.” But what did my mother know from normal?
“Well, it’s not okay to do that,” she’d stated. “It’s a bad habit.”
What did I, a small happy child, know from bad habits?
“Touch your ears instead. They’re just as soft.”
“Yes,” she said putting my tiny hand on my tiny lobe. “Rub this. See? It’s nice, right?”
It was nice. Quite nice.
One hour and an overpriced black cashmere sweater later, we headed into the mall. No fewer than five times did I have to stop my mother from entering another store before we finally reached Kay Jewelers. While my mother spoke with the salesgirl, I bent over the glass case of earrings, excitedly surveying the many choices. When I saw a pair of sparkly azure-colored balls, I knew they’d look marvelous contrasted against my dark hair. “These,” I said calling my mother over. “I want to get these.”
My mother stood next to me and peered into the case. I could smell the JOY Parfum my father insisted she wear. I knew it was one of the world’s most expensive perfumes because he made a point of telling people that whenever he had the chance. To be honest, it actually smelled pretty fantastic.
“No, come over here,” she said dragging me over to the case filled with diamond studs. She pointed to a pair of small diamond earrings. “May we see these please?” she said to the lady behind the counter. The lady took them out and gently placed them on a black velvet pad as if showing off the Hope Diamond. When my mother put her left hand out to touch them the young woman gave out a small yelp. “Wow! Your ring. Whoa.”
One day, when I was ten years old, I stayed home from school because I was sick. I remember being in bed contentedly flipping through my Archie comic books when I heard my mother shriek as if she’d suddenly confronted a snake. I threw off my pink duvet and ran into my parent’s bedroom. “What’s wrong Mom?” I asked when I saw her tearing the pillows and sheets off the bed while frantically screaming “Oh my God! Oh my God!” over and over. For a few scared seconds I wondered if she’d lost her mind. My crazy kid imagination pictured her being taken away in a straightjacket, leaving me to be raised by my father, or—worse—our mean housekeeper whose name I can no longer recall.
“Mommy!” I yelled, throwing myself on the bed. “What are you doing?”
“My ring. I can’t find my ring!!”
“Help me look for it. Oh my God, your father is going to kill me.”
My feverish imagination conjured images of my father—who had quite the temper—stabbing my mother in the chest, blood spattering everywhere. Since I loved her more than anything in the world, I knew I would have to help save her. “Tell me what happened so we can figure this out,” I said calmly touching her arm.
My touch was enough to snap her out of her frenzy. She sat on the edge of the disheveled bed. “Let’s see. I was in bed watching TV,” she said thinking out loud, “and I always take off my ring and put it on the night table before I go to sleep.” Even I, an adolescent with a barely formed brain, discerned the inherent dangers of sleeping with a 7.54-carat marquis-shaped diamond ring. A sudden bodily shift in the middle of the night might gouge out an eye, or, at the very least, shred a sheet. Hence, the nightly removal.
My father had given my mother the ring only a few months ago for their 15th wedding anniversary. It was yet another in a long line of extravagant objects he bought because he could. Before the ring he’d gifted himself a Maserati Mistral. Between the car and the ring there was the carpeted treehouse from FAO Schwarz. And the thoroughbred race horse. And the Chagall painting. And the gold Rolex watch.
“I just don’t get where it can be. I put it right there!” she said, pointing at the empty bedside table.
I closed my eyes and tried to wish the ring into magically reappearing and when I opened them I saw my mother jump up. “Wait!! I ate a peach. I ate a peach!” she screamed rushing out of the room. Wondering what on earth a peach had to do with the price of tea in China, I ran after her, almost tripping down the long flight of stairs. When I reached the kitchen I saw that she’d upended the garbage pail onto the kitchen floor and was now furiously clawing through the remains of last night’s dinner. I dropped down to my knees. “What are you doing, Mom?” Again, my worries about her sanity intensified.
She continued pawing at rolled up dirty napkins, ripping them apart before tossing them aside. “I ate a peach, sweetie,” she said, finally noting my presence. “I rolled the pit up in a napkin. Maybe by accident I—” and suddenly there it was, her enormous ring, rolled up inside a white paper napkin. Next to the brown mottled peach pit, the diamond positively glowed. As did my mother.
Sure, my diamond studs were pretty enough, but after wearing them for a few months, I got bored by their staidness. Here, I’d already given up comfort rubbing. I didn’t want to also give up being able to express my individuality. For God’s sake, I was a teenager.
“I’m gonna get some new earrings,” I declared one morning at breakfast. “Something dangly.”
My father looked up from the newspaper and shook his head. “No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. Diamonds are so dull.”
Out of the corner of my eye I caught my mother gazing longingly at her own diamond. Dull, it was not.
“We only agreed to let you get your ears pierced if you wore diamonds,” my father said, “and they weren’t cheap. You will NEVER TAKE THEM OUT.”
After many days of whining and crying and threatening to toss the studs and let my holes close up, a compromise was reached: I would keep a diamond in my left ear and wear whatever I wanted in my right ear.
Decades later, I still haven’t removed the diamond from my left ear, and my collection of single earrings has grown considerably.
Whenever people discover my one-earring-wearing proclivity, they are quick to offer me their lone stud or drop or hoop or dangle earring, although the conversation that follows usually goes something like this:
“This was from my favorite pair of earrings. I’m only lending it to you. If I ever find the other one, you have to promise to give this back.”
“I promise,” I always reply, although I’ve yet to return a single earring in 40 years.
Not long after my father got involved with “La Costra Nostra” and lost his fortune, my parents divorced. Dad either sold or put into hock most of our accumulated valuables. He tried to convince Mom to sell the diamond to help make ends meet for me and my brothers, but my mother adamantly refused. “The ring stays in the family,” she insisted. “When I die, it’ll go to Lisa.”
“I don’t want it, Mom,” I said to her after she made that pronouncement. “It’s hideous. I’ll never wear it.”
“So sell it and buy a house,” she replied, shrugging. She didn’t care so much about creating a legacy: she just didn’t want the man who cheated on her for thirty years to have it.
Being as she wasn’t able to afford to insure it, she kept it in her safe deposit box. Only when she attended an event that required elegance—whether it be a wedding or bar mitzvah or a date with a new gentleman—would my mother take the ring out of the vault and slip it onto her bare finger.
Four years ago I flew to California to pack up my mother’s house and move her to Florida. Most of her friends had died, and she wanted to be closer to her sister, who lives there. My brothers and I had been suspecting something was off about my mother for some months, but during the ten days I spent with her I became fairly certain her brain was faltering. At that point I knew nothing about dementia, but I knew my mother’s suddenly inability to balance her checkbook was strange indeed. I was concerned enough that I talked her into letting me take control of her finances. We headed down to Wells Fargo and put my name on all her accounts, and, while she was getting her hair done next door, I cleaned out her safe deposit box, quickly grabbing everything and stuffing it into a plastic bag.
On the plane back to Vermont I clung nervously to the bag, and when I landed I drove immediately to my bank and opened a safe deposit box. Alone in the small well-lit room I opened the bag. I found her birth certificate; a diamond-and-sapphire Piaget watch; two pearl necklaces; a ruby ring I never saw her wear; assorted cheap rings and bracelets; and, of course, the RING. Just for the heck of it, I put it on my hand and snapped a photo of it.
I was about to scrunch up the empty bag and slide the metal box into the empty slot, when I realized there was something else still inside it. I reached in and pulled out a small blue velvet bag tied tight with a gold-colored string. Anticipating another treasure; one more valuable bauble that I will someday sell to help pay for the very expensive memory care facility my mother presently resides in, I untied the braided string and shook the bag. Out dropped a small diamond stud, the earring I’d long ago left behind.
It’s been a rough couple of months for the entire planet. To be sure, every one of us has some sort of cross to bear during this nightmare—some more burdensome than others. After I wrote about a few of my own crosses, a great many folks private-messaged or emailed me words of encouragement, love, support. Susan N., an acquaintance from Nevada City who I haven’t seen in more than a dozen years, did something unexpected: she mailed me a package of single earrings. That she even remembered I wear only one earring was shocking enough, but that, out of the blue she took the time to find, pack and send me that pink box full of treasures, made my heart—and right ear—shine just a little bit brighter.
Thank you, Susan.
I’m an insider.
By that I don’t mean I’m part of a small knowing faction of people. I belong to no esoteric subset of society. I am not an inside trader. I have no inside knowledge.
Put simply: I spend the majority of my time inside. I do this because:
Okay, so all hyperbole aside, I do venture out now and again, but I need a good reason to. Some of these reasons include:
Margot is a writer. Besides being an associate editor for Vermont’s groovy independent weekly, she bylines terrific book and movie reviews for them. Oh, and she’s also the author of two young adult thrillers. She recently let Loy read an advanced copy of her newest novel, The Glare, (set to be released July 2020) and Loy deemed it “really scary and really good.”
Speaking of Loy: on Tuesday nights she works at Leunig’s Petit Bijou, a small semi-heated kiosk in downtown Burlington. It fancies itself a French bistro and beyond selling espresso drinks and pastries, its Francophile-inspired fare includes beignets, poutine (which is French Canadian and, honestly, I don’t get why it exists), pre-wrapped duck pate and other assorted sandwiches, as well as an intriguing mix of salads, many of which are festooned with fruit.
Every Tuesday night, after she closes, Loy is supposed to toss out all the food deemed less than fresh, but instead she brings it home, whereupon I immediately dig through the bags, culling the jambon et buerre baguettes, stale scones, and wilted salads from the perfectly edible remains.
And then I email Margot.
Because Margot is another shut-in insider who isn’t keen to interact with other humans. Like me, she works from her home office. When she exercises, she dons headphones and walks around her condominium complex (3 circuits = 1 mile) while listening to her favorite podcasts. Once a week she takes a one-on-one ice-skating lesson.
But on Wednesdays Margot has to leave her house for a mandatory editorial meeting. As long as she’s dressed and already outside, Margot is almost always up for getting together, especially when I tell her about the food bounty I’ve scored. I mean, who doesn’t love a free lunch?
Margot is also a skittish driver and hates going anywhere in the city where parking is problematic. The local food co-op has plentiful parking, but more importantly, it has cutlery.
And packets of oil and vinegar.
I try to get there a bit early so that by the time Margot finds me in the small airy café, I’ve set two places with paper napkins, plastic forks and knives, and laid out our feast of leftovers. For the next two or three hours we talk books and writing and publishing and life and editing and movies and cats and family dramas while taking bites of one salad then another; eating half a turkey sandwich before moving on to the ahi tuna and then to the roast beef. With our coffees, we plunder the brownies and eclairs. Around us I sense the other patrons eyeing our food orgy with a mix of suspicion and jealousy, but I don’t care because when I’m outside with Margot, I feel both empowered and at ease. We relate to one another’s social discomfiture and writerly frustrations. We have no trouble making eye contact. She offers me intelligent and inspiring advice about my novel-in-progress, and—even though she tries to demur—I expound on the reasons I admire the shit out of her many talents. And when, at last, we walk out together to the parking lot, neither of us feels the need to hug goodbye.
I just sent Margot an email, checking in. She’s concerned about her sister and mother, her job, and the public relations plans surrounding the launch of her novel. I didn’t have to ask her how she’s doing being isolated because this new normal our fellow earthlings are presently experiencing is pretty much status quo for the likes of us insiders.
I mean, yeah, in some respects it’s still the same:
But it’s also very very different:
Now that (almost) the entire planet has joined the insider club, I’m no longer an outlier. My heretofore isolatory behavior has become socially acceptable, if not downright mandatory.
We are all of us, alone together.
And frankly, it sucks. It stinks. It’s impossibly, ineffably surreal.
It’s also an incredibly inconvenient time to be diagnosed with cancer.
In January, after two biopsies of what I presumed were innocuous but annoying red lumps on my scalp, I found out I have non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. More precisely: Primary cutaneous follicle center lymphoma (PCFCL), a type of B cell lymphoma (PCBCL).
For the most part, it’s considered an indolent cancer.
[ in-dl-uhnt ]
having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion; slothful: an indolent person.
Pathology. causing little or no pain; inactive or relatively benign: an indolent ulcer that is not painful and is slow to heal.
This means that if the cancer is confined only to my scalp, the prognosis is generally excellent. But, if the tumors on my head turned out to be merely the—excuse the pun—tip of the iceberg, it is far less excellent. In order to find out what lay beyond, the docs needed to dig deep inside me.
First, they took a lot of my blood.
Then they shot radioactive glucose through my veins before strapping my arms down and feeding me into a PET-CT scan machine.
The news was good: all 14 blood tests were normal and there was no sign of cancer in my lymph nodes or organs. But, it just so happens that in about 10% of cases, this drowsy cancer acts like it just downed a case of Red Bull, kicking into high gear and Franken-forming into a more deadly systemic B-cell lymphoma.
We were all in agreement: the sooner I get these pesky bumps off my head the better.
Did I mention that this kind of cancer is extremely rare and few docs exist who know anything about it? Did I also mention that there is no set guidelines for how best to get rid of the tumors?
The radiation oncologist I met with said 15 rounds of high-dose radiation to my entire head would do the trick. It would also cause brain damage and permanent alopecia (baldness).
Many second opinions later I found a smart dermatologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock who more or less wrote the (very thin) book on this cancer. She suggested low-dose rate brachytherapy to only the tumors.
“Why irradiate perfectly good skin?” she stressed before walking out the door following our hour-long consultation. “With this cancer there’s a 40% chance the tumors will come back, but most likely in different parts of your scalp. We want to be able to radiate those when they do.”
Because of this pandemic nightmare, all non-emergency medical procedures are on hold, including treating lazy-ass tumors. As much as I love being an insider, a homebody, a sane and satisfied shut-in, I am anxious to get outside ASAP and zap these motherfucker rogue B-cells.
Until that happens I guess I’m staying inside, like I usually do. And, just for the heck of it, I might even change my clothes.